Testing for joy and grit? 

Jade Cooney leads “good-behavior games” with her fifth-grade class at Visitacion Valley Elementary School in San Francisco. Photo: Elizabeth D. Herman, New York Times

Schools are trying to measure students’ “social and emotional skills,” reports Kate Zernike in the New York Times. But how do you measure “joy” and “grit?” Nobody really knows.

SAN FRANCISCO — The fifth graders in Jade Cooney’s classroom compete against a kitchen timer during lessons to see how long they can sustain good behavior — raising hands, disagreeing respectfully and looking one another in the eye — without losing time to insults or side conversations.

As reward for minutes without misconduct, they win prizes like 20 seconds to kick their feet up on their desks or to play rock-paper-scissors.

And starting this year, their school and schools in eight other California districts will test students on how well they have learned the kind of skills like self-control and conscientiousness that the games aim to cultivate — ones that might be described as everything you should have learned in kindergarten but are still reading self-help books to master in middle age.

The newly revised federal education law “requires states to include at least one nonacademic measure in judging school performance,” notes Zernike.  But advocates of teaching social-emotional skills “warn that the definitions are unclear and the tests faulty.”

“I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” said Angela Duckworth, the Stanford psychologist who popularized the “growth mindset.” Her new book, out in May, is titled Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.

. . . Last spring, after attending a White House meeting on measuring social-emotional skills, she and a colleague wrote a paper warning that there were no reliable ways to do so. “Our working title was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way,” she said.

A 2011 analysis of 213 school-based social-emotional skills programs found that they improved academic achievement, writes Zernike. The next year, Paul Tough extolled schools that teach “grit” in How Children Succeed: Grit Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character

Next year, the federal National Assessment of Educational Progress will include questions about students’ social-emotional skills.

Parents don’t want Uncle Sam to become Uncle Shrink, writes Robert Holland in Townhall.

Massachusetts’ test for teachers is humbling

After years teaching middle school English, Peter Sipe decided to seek an elementary teaching credential in Massachusetts. Tackling the state teachers’ exam was “humbling — and motivating,” he writes.

He missed half the answers on the practice math test. “Questions 20 and 36, for example, gave me a bit of a workout,” he writes.

Then there was biology: “Why would some cells have more mitochondria than others?” He had to relearn bio.

With the help of knowledgeable friends, hours of study, and a kind and patient man named Sal Khan, I got better at the sample tests. But it was humbling. If you factor in my two graduate degrees, my fifteen-year teaching career, and the fact that I’ve written disparagingly about teacher preparation standards in these very pages, my humbling was squared (or cubed, or something).

That practice math test is not easy.

Pride is high, scores are low at Afrocentric school

Second grader Lamiya Benton claps during the unity circle, which begins each day at Sizemore. Photo: Alyssa Schukar, New York Times

In a Chicago “neighborhood riddled with crime, blight and poverty,” an “Afrocentric” charter school has strong supporters — and very low test scores — reports John Eligon for the New York Times. The district wants to close Sizemore Academy. Backers say the K-8 school has instilled confidence in children suffering from “the residual effects of slavery.”

Like dozens of African-centered schools across the country, Sizemore embodies much of what racial justice activists are screaming from rooftops. Suspension is a last resort. Teachers address students by courtesy titles and their last names. The accomplishments of blacks are front and center in lesson plans.

But students — 97 percent from low-income families — test well below the district average in reading and math. Scores are low at most Afrocentric charters, concludes a recent study by Martell L. Teasley of  the University of Texas at San Antonio.

While Chicago Public Schools “values providing enriching cultural experiences for all our students, it is unacceptable to fail to teach students basic math and reading skills, no matter which school model is used,” said Emily Bittner, a district spokeswoman in an email.

The day starts with African drumming, reports Eligon. Students “raise their right fists to salute both the American and the red, black and green Pan-African flags.” They chant, “We are African people” and commit themselves to “sustainable living, self-determination and self-respect.”

The theory is that in a world where negative images of blacks breed hopelessness, a curriculum centered on the strength, beauty and accomplishments of the African diaspora lifts disadvantaged black children. And that prepares them for success better than a traditional Eurocentric education, which advocates say reduces blacks in history to little more than slaves and the token civil rights hero.

. . . To create a familial bond, students address the faculty and staff as “Mama” and “Baba,” meaning mother and father in Swahili. . . .

Students are taught to conduct themselves by seven ancient Egyptian virtues: truth, justice, righteousness, order, balance, harmony and reciprocity.

. . . First graders, who already had learned to sing a song in Spanish, were learning to speak Igbo, a major language in Nigeria.

The Illinois Charter Commission voted yesterday to keep Sizemore open, reversing the district’s decision to close the school. The commission’s staff said the school is making progress.

If they can’t read, they can’t do well in college

The new SAT, which demands sophisticated literacy skills — even in math — could “penalize students who have not been exposed to a lot of reading,” educators told the New York Times.

College instructors must teach students how to read academic books, writes Amelia Leighton Gamel.

College instructors must learn to teach reading, writes Amelia Leighton Gamel.

It’s not unfair to require high-level reading ability to get into higher-level education, responds Timothy Shanahan, who founded the Center for Literacy at the University of Illinois, Chicago. The SAT is supposed to predict college success. Poor reading is an excellent predictor of college failure.

On a recent visit to a Montana middle school, Shanahan taught several lessons which required students to read their math and science textbooks. It was a new experience, the seventh and eighth graders admitted. The teachers were good at explaining things, so the students never learned to work their way through a textbook on their own.

These students won’t be prepared for college if they can’t make sense of what they read and apply it, writes Shanahan.


He grew up in a working-class community and wasn’t on the college-prep track in high school, he writes. But he found a list of books that college-bound students should read and tackled them. “I’m not claiming that I got as much out of reading Moby Dick or Microbe Hunters on my own at 16 as I would have under the tutelage of a good teacher (or as I have upon rereading them as an adult), but trying to understand such touchstone texts pays dividends,” he writes.

Reading challenging books will prepare students to succeed in college, writes Shanahan.  If “college entry is going to become biased against those not prepared for college . . . I think it’s about time.”

Simon Newman, president of Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, is under fire for suggesting giving tuition refunds to likely-to-fail students who leave early in their first semester. “You think of the students as cuddly bunnies,” he wrote in an email to a faculty member.  “You just have to drown the bunnies.” Or, perhaps, “put a Glock to their heads.”

So, why did Mount St. Mary’s admit these no-hope “bunnies” in the first place?

Untimed tests: ‘not such a crazy idea’

Untimed tests — aren’t such a crazy idea, opines Robert Pondiscio in the New York Daily News. In response to the opt-out movement — 20 percent of students skipped New York’s state exams — this spring’s test takers will be allowed as much time as they want.

Dropping time limits won’t invalidate the results, writes Pondiscio. Research shows extra time helps students with learning disabilities, but has no significant effect for students without disabilities.

Most state math and reading tests are “power” tests rather than “speed” tests, according to University of Pennsylvania psychometrician Andrew Porter. Power tests “are designed so that nearly all students will be able to complete all items within the allotted time.”

“Education officials seem to think that allowing unlimited time will give parents one less reason to complain about test pressure,” writes Pondiscio. He doubts it will work. “The real source of test pressure is not the clock, it’s adults pressuring kids to perform.”

Any leveling or reduction in the number of parents refusing to let kids sit for state tests this year will likely be a function of New York’s moratorium on linking test scores to teacher evaluations. School administrators and teachers are less likely to transfer their anxieties to students, wittingly or unwittingly.

The moratorium ends in 2020.

I’ve worked under deadline for most of my life. I do the best I can in the time and space I’ve got. Then I stop. I find unlimited time very stressful.

New SAT requires more reading

My 16-year-old niece won’t take the new SAT, which debuts in March. Uncertainty about the redesigned SAT — and fears that it will be harder — persuaded her to take the ACT instead. Apparently, she’s not the only one.

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

Serena Walker took a sample test in preparation for the SAT at Match charter school in Boston in January. Photo: Shiho Fukada, New York Times

The new SAT will demand more sophisticated reading skills — even in math — experts tell the New York Times.

It will be harder for students from non-English-speaking families to excel in math, Lee Weiss, the vice president of precollege programs at Kaplan Test Prep.

SAT dropped the vocabulary section of the test, saying it forced students to learn arcane words. But the new exam features longer reading passages that “contain sophisticated words and thoughts in sometimes ornate diction,” reports the Times.

The math problems include “a lot of unnecessary words,” said Serena Walker, a college-bound junior at Boston’s Match charter school, who was working on a practice quiz.

“An anthropologist studies a woman’s femur that was uncovered in Madagascar,” one question began. She knew a femur was a leg bone, but was not sure about “anthropologist.” She was contemplating “Madagascar” just as she remembered her teacher’s advice to concentrate on the essential, which, she decided, was the algebraic equation that came next, h = 60 + 2.5f, where h stood for height and f stood for the length of the femur.

“Students will need to learn how to wade through all the language to isolate the math,” wrote Jed Applerouth, who runs a national tutoring service, in a blog post. The new math test is 50 percent reading comprehension, he estimated.

The Times asks: How Would You Do on the New SAT? Check it out. I thought the math questions were ridiculously easy. Are they making the reading harder and the math easier?

Opt-out leaders reject NY test changes

An anti-testing rally at Brooklyn New School and the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies in March. Photo: Justin Weiner

New York students will take untimed tests this spring, said Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia.

“Thousands of students boycotted last year’s tests, prompting Gov. Andrew Cuomo to form a testing task force that called for a complete overhaul of the state’s learning standards and assessments,” reports Chalkbeat NY.

Elia also promised to give teachers more say in reviewing test questions and to shorten the length of tests.

Opt-out leaders weren’t impressed, saying parents won’t be appeased by minor changes.

“This is a pretty useless response to the opt-out movement,” Brooklyn teacher Jessica Klonsky wrote on Facebook. “People were not opting their children out of the tests because they didn’t have enough time to take them. They opted out because the tests and their preparation take up too much time as it is. Now they are going to take up more time!”

“More time for students to be frustrated on flawed state tests isn’t the answer,” Carl Korn, a state teachers’ union spokesman, responded in a statement.

Higher is better

Computer use widens writing gap

group elementary school students in computer class Writing essays on a computer, instead of using pencil and paper, helped high-performing fourth graders, but hurt average and low performers, concludes a new analysis of a 2012 federal study.  Computer use “may have widened the writing achievement gap,” warned researchers.

The Department of Education is pushing computerized tests, which are “more efficient and cheaper to grade,” writes Hechinger’s Jill Barshay. That could affect black, Latino and low-income students disproportionately.

In the study, high-performing students — the top 20 percent of the test takers — produced an average of 179 words per assignment on the computer, three times the number of words that the bottom 20 percent produced.  They also used spellcheck, backspace and other editing tools far more often. The researchers found that these high-performing students were more likely to have access to a computer and the Internet at home.

Teaching keyboarding and editing, giving students practice writing on a computer and buying child-sized keyboards could help, says Steve Graham, an Arizona State professor. While some fourth graders type at 25 word per minute, the average 12 words per minute and some are even slower.

Even handwriting advocates back teaching students to type, writes Barshay. University of Washington Professor Virginia Berninger thinks cursive writing instruction has “neurological benefits to the developing brain.” But she also supports teaching touch typing. “If we’re going to give them the annual test by computer, by golly, teach them how to use the computer. It’s not fair if we don’t.”

Everyone’s Going To College

I’m not one who believes that the purpose of our K-12 education system is, or should be, to prepare everyone for college.  Most people don’t attend, or even need to attend, a university, and neither do most need even an associate’s degree.  Our schools should be flexible enough to prepare our top students to attend universities and colleges, and everyone else should get a decent education that can help the student become a self-sustaining, independent, contributing member of society.  It would be great if most of our graduates could correctly perform basic mathematical calculations involving fractions and percents and could weave several coherent sentences together into a paragraph worth reading.  “College for all” is fluff without meaning.

I continue to be surprised by the large number of people who don’t hold that view.  I’ve read about several school districts, my own included, that have already changed or are looking into changing their graduation requirements to match the 4-year university entrance requirements (in California, those are the CSU/UC a thru g requirements).  Does anyone truly believe that everyone should, or that everyone needs to, go to college?  Does anyone truly believe that every K-12 student could meet university entrance requirements?  We do kids a disservice when we send them the message that they’re failures if they don’t go to college.

Three days ago I posted about Colorado’s giving the ACT or SAT to every high school junior.  They’re not the only state:

Delaware announced today that instead of giving the Smarter Balanced assessment in grades 3-8 and 11 as it did last year, it will administer the test only in grades 3-8, and use the SAT in high school in 2015-16.

Delaware is just the latest in a crop of states that have jilted PARCC or Smarter Balanced for college-entrance exams recently. In the last few weeks, we’ve reported to you that Colorado ditched PARCC for the SAT, and Montana dropped Smarter Balanced for the ACT.